Feelings, form and function

I was wrapped up in the UK Government Barcamp on Saturday (and the prospect of having to smuggle my SLR past the Googleguards twice more than I had to filled me with no joy) so I didn’t get to the “I’m a Photographer Not a Terrorist” gathering in Trafalgar Square. Gathering? Well, it wasn’t a flashmob, given its several-week notice, and it all seemed far too polite to be a demonstration :)

I had been much moved by Simon Pollock’s piece before the PHNAT event on why he wasn’t going. [Precis: if we all behaved with more civility, there would be far less tension between police and public, including photographers].

Though I think there are numerous illustrations, including “Sus law” histories, which show that maybe politeness isn’t always enough, it did make me think more about information gathering and the purpose behind it. Which in a way relates back to some of the things we touched on at the Barcamp.

Example – there’s a certain government department (which shall remain nameless) that has a different reception desk policy from most of the others. It routinely asks visitors to show some ID. Now, given I am: a) a fully paid-up member of the awkward squad; b) Inquisitive about What Will Happen If…?; c) a zealous activist for privacy rights (take your pick), my answer to this question is: Oh, I’m terribly sorry, I don’t seem to have anything on me at the moment. Bank card? No, sorry, not even that.

To which the automated response is: ok, in you go, but next time… (This ritual has been enacted on my last nine visits there, by the way.)

For it is a ritual. There is no function to the data request. It is a matter of form. A matter of belief, if you like: we do this to make each other believe that we’ve noted a process, and that diligence has been done. In short, this type of information (non-)exchange is really about feelings, more than form. And very likely nothing to do with function. And because the receptionist has reached an acceptable level of feeling – they asked, and then gave a suitable admonition – and because I have as well – I think the data request is meaningless and toothless – we go on our separate ways, content that honour has been satisfied.

It’s the same when the PCSO grabs the art student. This is a human exchange, first and foremost (and perhaps entirely). Do we really believe he’s going to get that data into a findable format so that a sensible risk assessment can be carried out based on the collated movements of that student? No, of course not. He wants to feel he’s done his job. Or that he’s in control. Or in the worst excess, that he’s been shown the right ‘attitude’. It is what Mr Patrick might refer to as a “weak tell”.

Eyewitnesses (including current and former police) often speak of situations escalating because ‘attitude’ was being shown. Of course I don’t dismiss the value of ‘feelings’ – good and bad – in genuine security decisions; it’s these weaker senses of it that I’m targeting here.

So, something to think about perhaps, the next time you are asked for any personal information, no matter how trivial it may seem. What function is really being served?

Is it all really about feelings?

ps. It’s b) by the way. Experiment to learn, always… Hell, I refused to give any personal details (other than necessary for payment) when buying a sofa last week; it worries me that through the routine gathering of marketing information we have largely eroded the general public’s concept of sensible privacy practice, but that’s for another post…